Thesis | Meeting with Makers

This week I began to meet with making centers, hacking spaces, and small-scale manufacturing and fabrication studios to better understand the needs of our target market. I have a few more coming up in the NYC area and then I hope to get out of the city and meet with a more suburban/rural making center to understand their challenges.

In this post, I’ll sum up my two interviews from last week, one with NYC Resistor and the other with StokesNYC. These were two very different spaces and apart from providing me with information about some of the makers’ challenges,  I also realized that the term “maker space” can have lots of different meanings and ideas behind it and really has more to do with how the members self-identify and why they feel like they are there – commercial vs for fun, amateur vs. professional etc.

Both of these interviews were conducted in an informal one-on-one manner, although I used the interview questions generated previously to guide the conversation.

NYC Resistor

imag0741When I got to NYC Resistor I was greeted by a hackers dream. Five to seven people were gathered around a big communal work table, each in some stage of playing with circuitry or programming on their computers. Above them hung a beautiful tangle of wires, running along the ceiling, down the walls, over and under shelves bursting with bins of extra parts and small tools, and finally terminating in a series of amazing wall sculptures made from LED’s, flashing clock lamps, bicycle taxidermy and more. While this setup would have intimidated me to no end in the past, after being on D12 for so long, it just felt like home.

About the Space

I had come on open night, which means that the space was open to both members and non-members, and got there just in time for a tour of the space. One of the members took us around their huge space which had separate rooms for CNC and heavy woodworking (Tool Town), a 3D printer and related filament and finishing tools, a “Thingsgiving” corner with spare electronics, a printing press, sewing machines and more. They even had a ham radio available for those who have a license! We ended the tour in a laser-cutting room, where a member was just starting up a project.

After the tour, I was able to meet with some of the members and ask them my questions, which focused on their business model, the types of services provided, and challenges they had as an organization.

It became immediately clear to me that they identified as a Private Hacker Space, not a maker space or a fabrication lab or anything else, very clearly a place for hacking. This was mostly related to a hacker vs. maker ethos, rather that they weren’t a commercial space, or looking to solve problems necessarily, they made things because they can and because it is fun. Hacking is finding a novel solution to an interesting problem, and that is what they tried to do.

Business Model

Their business model was very interesting and centered around dues paying members who were invited to join the space, after having come in as a non-member. They told me that this was because they wanted to curate a specific sense of community, building an atmosphere that let people be comfortable with tinkering around, making weird things, failing, and generally being hungry to learn.

Otherwise, they are a private volunteer-based organization with no employees. All of the classes are taught by member volunteers, who get a break in their dues. Members also get a discount on machine time. The space rents out their fabrication machines like the 3D printer, CNC and laser to both members and non-members for different prices. They also host classes which non-members can take around various types of fabrication, circuitry, code, and crafts, earning money from fees collected from these endeavours. Finally, members work to do fundraising events during the year. All combined (and with a good deal on rent for Boerum Hill) they are able to be cash-flow positive after their expenses.

I also spoke with them about how they purchase new machinery and tools, and they said it is all member-driven. Sometimes members will donate equipment or go in together to buy a new machine for the space. They will then get pre-paid credit to use the new machine in the future, not having to pay the hourly rate.

Main Insights 

I thought that this model was actually pretty great. When people care about something, a space, a feeling, an ethos, they will work together to make sure it stays in business. No one is paid here, no one has benefits, but they are able to come together not only to teach classes, work on their own projects, and be welcoming to new makers and hackers, they also pool resources and time to improve the space, not relying on traditional funding models and financial resources like loans and grants, but trusting each other to help finance and repay community needs.

I have been doing a lot of research on the challenges of underrepresented entrepreneurs (women, minority, non-urban, LGBT etc.) for my job, and the biggest barrier cited is a lack of access to capital. Both a lack of access to traditional capital that relies on credit scores and history, but also a lack of access to capital from friends and family. I believe the quote said a white entrepreneur had access to 16x more capital than a minority entrepreneur. In addition, both women and minorities are often closed out of innovation and tech-led innovation spaces due to a lack of network, gender bias, and less of an education and familiarity with tech tools.

The team at NYC Resistor told me it was a priority of theirs to cultivate a diverse space and prided themselves that they had so many woman hackers coming in, compared to the typical hacker space across the world. They also said they were actively working on increasing other types of diversity, by making the space as open and welcoming as possible. They adopt a learn by failing mentality and praise failure as long as education comes from it. This ethos has also been cited as one potential solution to helping underrepresented entrepreneurs access education since it is open and welcoming to beginners.

Finally, I asked them about whether they would be interested in our platform and they said not as an organization, but that they wouldn’t mind if their members wanted to be part of it and producing products on their machines. A lot of members come to the space, work on their projects there, and eventually move on as the scope of production moves beyond the capacity of the space. They only have one of each machine so it would be impossible for them to take on a high volume of products and still do their education and open-space. It would also be a bit cost ineffective since the membership price structure requires people to rent time on the machine by the minute or hour. This means that the more complicated the project, the less money the member would receive for their time.

Overall, NYC Resistor was a great experience and helped me better understand a particular type of space that exists. I don’t believe they would quite be our target market, but they definitely gave me ideas about how the blockchain could be used as a community funding model, since it would more safely and fairly help people to go in together on projects and equipment, making sure the money was used correctly and automatically paying the investment back according to rules the community set up.

Stokes NYC

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Stokes NYC is a fabrication workshop in Ridgewood Queens that both produces its own furniture line and also does small-batch manufacturing. They combine the craft of traditional woodworking with the technology of advanced manufacturing for prototyping, small batch manufacturing, and CNC Milling and are set up to produce CNC milled solid wood parts, either for complete product fabrication or part making only.

Unlike NYC Resistor, Stokes was very much a working business, not a community and education space. It was not normally open to the public except for special events, and people were not often encouraged to come and use the machines they had.

Since the focus on CNC Milled products and parts, the majority of the workshop was taken up by wood-working tools, both traditional and digital. I spoke to one of the co-owners, Bryce, who took me on a tour of the shop and answered a billion of my questions about how they worked.

Bryce was very adamant that they really focused on woodworking, trying to bring a traditional feel to digitally manufactured products. As such, Bryce was always taking apart old furniture, learning about the joinery and how it could be adapted for CNC. Joinery is especially important in CNC furniture, especially if your aesthetic involves having less hardware and screws.While the furniture might be designed for CNC however, it was all made from hardwoods and finished using traditional woodworking techniques. He said they wanted to bring the power of digital manufacturing to the production process, but not lose out on the quality and artisanship of well-made furniture. This allowed them to try to reach a millennial market, who cared about the history and work that went into the product as well as the simple and well-made modern design, but couldn’t afford a similar product from a high-end, fully hand-made furniture company or design studio.

Check out some photos of their small-batch manufacturing projects below! You can find even more awesome projects on their Instagram.

Working with Open-Source Manufacturing

I particularly wanted to speak with StokesNYC since I saw they were part of an open manufacturing network, where an online platform helped connect virtual designers to their space to produce one-off products for customers. Rather the customer could order any design from anywhere in the world on the platform, and then the order would be sent locally to StokesNYC for production.

One key piece of feedback I received is that it is really hard to work with this type of system for the following reasons.

  • The files take too much setup and adjustment time. It’s not like you can just download the file, CNC it out and it’s perfect, it requires machine-by-machine adjustments.
  • Since all the furniture is made from plywood, the quality and thickness of the wood can vary, requiring even more setup time to adjust for the types of materials being used.
  • Sanding and finishing the product also takes a lot of time
  • Since the order is usually just for 1 product at a time, all of that setup time goes to just make one thing. If 10 or 20 were being made this would be fine since the setup could be justified and all the further pieces cut out.
  • The final piece also requires doing a prototype run to make sure the design even works. Often the joints are too tight and adjustments need to be made. Wasteful to use a nice wood for this so MDF is used to do several prototype runs of the build first, until the design is right.

Business Model

Bryce emphasized that their own model works differently and is better. He closely works with a designer from the beginning sketches and specifications to the test product. Many designers do know what they are doing coming in and have very clear files, but many designers really don’t know much about how CNC manufacturing works and have unrealistic expectations about the time, cost, or ways things can go together. At the beginning of the business this was a hard thing to negotiate, but after learning over the years, Bryce says they now are very good at quoting and understanding whether or not a designers idea will work.

However, Bryce said that designers are also his main customer and he loves to work with them to help them make their idea real. Many designers who aren’t quite ready to do large-scale production in China, but have outgrown “their Dad’s garage” will come to him to do runs of 50 – 200 products to sell locally. He feels like he really is part of helping them become successful, teaching them about manufacturing and helping them take their business to the next level.

One very important insight I realized was that Bryce considered the setup and design testing working, the adjustments and tips/tricks recorded to modify the original design to work better, his own intellectual property. If the customer wanted to go to another manufacturer, they could pay Bryce out for his notes, and bring them to the next fabricator to cut down on their setup and finishing time, even if adjustments still needed to be made for the machine.

He said that it would be great if there was a way to parametrically adjust the CNC machine based upon information gathered during the making process. Rather that if another maker tested out a product and made notes, that those notes would automatically be interpreted by his machine and the appropriate adjustment be made automatically.

Main Insights

Speaking with Bryce really opened me up to some of the steps I didn’t realize were part of digital fabrication and the challenges of the small-batch manufacturing process. I actually could hear him speak to a customer briefly as well which helped me understand how unprepared some designers could be when making inquiries about production, the first questions to them being “do you have a drawing of it”, and “have you made it by hand previously”?

I quickly understood that this type of work requires a real person to person negotiation with a designer to help shape and test the product before manufacturing a run of it. In addition, there were a lot of notes, changes, specs, and other information that needed to be recorded along with the product, and these were very highly valued as intellectual property since it would help any other center produce the product with its guidance.

This information could include:

  • the machine settings
  • the exact tools used
  • modifications to the file to adjust for joints that were too loose or too tight
  • suggestions on assembly
  • tools needed to assemble for the customer

While he tries not to change the designer’s aesthetic, a lot of times the process behind making a complicated design is very experimental and could involve creating whole new processes to achieve something.

Bryce called this packet of information the “Manufacturing Kit” and emphasized that they often sold this to their customers when they were done using them, although sometimes they would also insist on retaining it, trying to keep the customer working with them, especially if the team had put a lot of time and effort into figuring out how to make a really cool design work – it would look good that they were the sole manufacturer for it.

The other big insight I got was about how Bryce positioned their furniture line to customers, as high-quality but accessible, the idea of “buy once”  and buy local, instead of buy crap over and over again. While they had customers all over the USA, most were from Brooklyn and Manhattan. He felt they were trying to break the consumer cycle of buying cheap furniture and having it break in a few years. His flat-pack concept was very much inspired by Mid-Century modern Danish furniture but reimagined for CNC. Since the furniture they created was high-quality and used specific joints and hardware to help them last longer, as well as being portable and packing flat for customers, they were trying to reach a younger market that could afford to buy nice furniture once, and then have it for a while, instead of doing another IKEA run.

Insights on Business Model and Costs

Those were the two biggest insights I really gained, but below are some other important notes I made about their business model and costs that shed some light on challenges faces by these types of businesses, especially in NYC.

  • Labor is the most expensive cost for the business, especially as more staff come on board and are needed to help.
  • The average salary for a CNC operator is $20 – $25 /hour and Assembly/Finishers get about $15 – $25/hour, depending on experience
  • Typically new employees get their start as a shop-assistant and come on as a freelance apprentice as they learn the ropes. If they enjoy it and work out, they are hired as an hourly employee and given every increasing responsibilities (usually start with cleaning and sanding).
  • It’s common to allow employees to do their own projects after hours on the machines, and encouraged so that they learn to contribute to the manufacturing process and help do unique work.
  • They have never been able to take out a traditional business loan, but make enough money that they can either buy new machines with cash or take out a credit card and pay it off in time.
  • They sell their own furniture online and through pop-up sales and local events
  • They try to get press on design blogs and furniture blogs so that people can help find them
  • They also have a store on both Etsy and Amazon Handmade to help spread the word
  • Our space is less a maker space like 3rd Ward, we are more of a professional shop that is run in a top-down typical corporate legal structure, although we are informal at work and don’t have hierarchies and managers in a very formal sense
  • Designers typically have us sign an NDA to help them with their designs
  • They carry product liability insurance to protect themselves from liability and operate as a LLC, but our products are very well-made and tested extensively before put out. This also protects the designer as manufacturers are liable for the finished piece.

Suggestions for Our Project

Bryce also had several things we should consider when looking for the right type of space for our model and what types of products we should start with if we want them to be simple and require little finishing.

  • If you focus on a more collaborative style maker space that has education as a big component, you need to have a really big space to allocate part of it for dedicated manufacturing
  • There would need to be multiple copies of tools, some for the education and rental side for members, and others that are just for fabrication
  • You should also have a dual member/employee structure, where you make money from both having members pay dues and for machine time, have paid for classes and education, and have employees working on dedicated machines to do the small-batch manufacturing
  • Start with looking at products that have several flat surfaces and with few edges like shelves and organisational units, things with a small surface to edge ratio.
  • Things like chairs require a lot of sanding and finishing. Also, plywood is cool for furniture, if that is an aesthetic you like, but most furniture is made from hardwood.
  • Focus on things that have few edges and are meant to be made from plywood, shelves, organizational units, planters, boxes, accessories etc. Small organizational units would be a really good fit for you guys.
  • I would love to participate in a network that helped me connect better with designers, even if I couldn’t talk with them face to face.
  • It would be cool if there was a way to have all of the “manufacturing kit” on the blockchain platform so that one maker could test the product and get it production ready, then also get a special cut of each product produced in the future for having done the work.
  • I have heard of the blockchain before, but never considered how it could be used for manufacturing. Just thought it was a bitcoin money type of thing or I’ve also heard a bit about Ethereum and I know it enables you to do smart contracts.
  • I can  see how these smart contracts could help to coordinate our work with designers in the future, allowing us to negotiate with them and connect with the information we need from them and they need from us, both being fairly compensated
  • If you wanted to make this work, you will have to maybe rethink how the makers achieve consensus. Is there a way you could connect the makers in a network so they could have more control over the designs coming in, especially to start?
    • Could a designer come in and all the makers in the network review the file and vote whether or not they want to produce it?

Moving Forward

This last week I have taken a step back from the project a little bit, trying to give myself more of a systems and community development viewpoint as to how this is done.

I got some feedback last week that while the product and platform is important as a test-case, the blockchain is the truly innovative part of the system and I needed to do a better job and reorient my deliverables to show how it really is a whole new way to bring people together into a community of trust, forging new pathways for their collaboration.

I have been doing a lot of research on the value-add of the blockchain to manufacturing and have been struck with this idea of a “digital thread” to products, the digital narrative of all of the people and information associated with the conception, production, and sale of the product from beginning to end.

When it comes to manufacturing, I think that this might be the real value add for the blockchain, allowing a digital story to be stored on the chain, and opening up different parts of that story to the people who need the information, as well as crediting and paying people accordingly when that information is used.

The insights gained from the interviews really helped to drive this home for me, especially since they took place as this massive research project for my job into best practices to support underserved entrepreneurs.

I’ve been sketching a lot this week, trying to map out how the blockchain can really contain this digital twin and have it interact with the various parties making products throughout the design process. I’m especially interested in how I might be able to represent this functionally through the seal Audrey and I discussed, a RFID or NFC enabled tag that we thought would act as a certificate of authenticity for the product. Now I realize its less about authenticity, and more about transparency. Our tag can of course make sure people get paid, but people care less about that than I thought, they care about the story and people behind a product, since mass-produced cheap crap products are so empty, opaque in their production, and really just throw-away.

  • Can we use the blockchain to help tell the story of these products using the seal?
  • How could a person tap into this narrative and feel emotionally engaged in their products, knowing the story of how it was made and with what it was made?
  • How can this same digital story actually help coordinate the relationship between designers and makers in a more organic and natural way, reminiscent of the complex relationships we have in person?

I think that mass-production and corporate structures are fundamentally alien to how humans really collaborate and work together, a certain informally and back and forth not being represented by rigid hierarchies and top-down processes.

Given that the blockchain is about trust and collaboration in a community, where the sum of all people are required to do work to keep the system running, and where smart contracts can  help to automate some of the complex relationships we have, how can these various benefits really apply to our audiences?

  • How can this style of doing business support communities who may be locked out of traditional financing options?
  • How can helping individuals open up their own maker center, connecting them to this “maker blockchain” community, pass along the benefits and philosophy of maker and hacker spaces to a wider community, and can this same ethos help underrepresented communities engage with education and entrepreneurial activity that they can do themselves?
  • What new business models does this support and how can blockchain-based investment and financing create a more cooperative business structure that mirrors the support and networks found in these communities?
  • What would be the process of allowing makers or community members to invest in the blockchain itself, or how could the same or a separate blockchain be used as a community investment model that brought people together to start these types of spaces?

I realized that for my Thesis work, Unum is really a test-case, a learn-through-making type of platform that is representative of a much larger opportunity that I need to discuss, though maybe not get into as much for pitching the platform to other parties. My contribution and expertise to this project is studying understanding the juxtaposition of decentralization and emerging technologies, and how they can help educate, empower, and engage people to collaborate in new ways, without relying on centralized 3rd-party powers.

Unum is a test-case of this idea for digital manufacturing and products, a particularly good fit since the makers movement similarly is fueled by decentralizing technologies, but what is really interesting for my actual Thesis work is examining how the blockchain is the right platform to support more community-oriented and decentralized relationships that are already emerging in the wake of the internet revolution generally. By examining them now and engaging people, perhaps I can help to stave off the appropriation of this amazing new technology by the powers that be, allowing them to reap all the rewards of how it works and makes efficiencies, but closing people off to the potential of how it really is a platform to help build trust in a globally networked community, without needing them at all.

For this week, I will continue working along the workplan Audrey and I started, but move back from the business plan aspect of it, and more into creating a systems map that explains how the blockchain can be used to coordinate these various efforts and how it specifically could add value to various stages of the investment, coordination, production, and sales methods. I want to really understand how I can speak about this opportunity through my presentation and later in the Symposium – which is apparently back on.

I also want to think more about an interactive or more artistic representation of this “digital thread/digital narrative” metaphor and how it could help to showcase our projects many layers in the end of year interactive showcase. I’m thinking something with lights, string, maybe some sound or image-based interactive narrative etc. Not quite sure yet, but trying to find some way to show all of these threads weaving together into one digital story about the product, where you can touch or access a specific one to see the individual story, based upon which seal is in the piece.

More thinking to come!!!

I’ll leave you with a beautiful sunset seen from the Stokes NYC space as I was leaving.

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